Filing a complaint as an alternative method to argue certain elements in a taxpayer’s file
This article is the first in a series of two in which we will address two types of administrative remedies taxpayers know little about. This article will deal with filing a complaint with the Agence du Revenu du Québec (ARQ) and the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). The next article will discuss possible remedies before autonomous bodies that are independent from tax authorities such as the Protecteur du citoyen (Quebec ombudsman) or the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman (federal).
1. What type of complaint is admissible?
In general, a complaint is an expression of taxpayer dissatisfaction or conflict with the ARQ or the CRA regarding a decision, a file, a service rendered or the application of a law, a regulation, a program or a procedure. Before lodging a complaint, it’s important to ensure that the subject matter falls within the jurisdiction of the CRA or the ARQ. For example, whistleblowing, information requests, requests for legal opinions, notices of objection or tax policy issues are not actually complaints.
Filing a complaint is not a substitute for an objection or an appeal before the courts. Thus, the fact of lodging a complaint does not suspend the time limit for filing an objection to a notice of assessment or the collection measures provided for under tax legislation. Consequently, taxpayers must act in a way that preserves their rights to seek remedies and also meet their tax obligations.
2. When to file a complaint?
As mentioned above, taxpayers must first ensure that the complaint is addressed to the appropriate authority. Second, they must have attempted to settle the dispute themselves by discussing the issue with an agent or the agent’s superior. Taking these steps before filing a complaint is to the taxpayer’s advantage since a number of disputes can be settled at these levels. Afterwards, if the taxpayer still feels wronged, a complaint can be filed. Attempting to settle the dispute before filing a complaint also shows that the taxpayer takes the matter seriously.
3. How to make a complaint?
In Quebec, there is no specific formality for filing a complaint. It can be done by telephone, fax, mail or secure email. At the federal level, a service-related complaint must be made using Form RC193. If the complaint deals with CRA reprisals, Form RC459 must be forwarded to the CRA’s Internal Affairs and Fraud Control Division for investigation and not to the office named in the complaint. Forms RC193 and RC459 can be sent by mail or by fax.
There are no significant differences between complaints filed with the CRA or the ARQ. At a minimum, complaints must include a description of the problem, the names of the persons involved, the dates of communications, a description of the steps taken and the results obtained, and the taxpayer’s desired outcome. Emotions can sometimes take on significant proportions in this type of dispute. It is therefore important to depersonalize the process and remain as factual as possible.
4. How will the complaint be processed?
In Quebec, the complaint is addressed to the Direction du traitement des plaintes (DTP), which looks at its admissibility. The complaint may be rejected at this stage if it is considered frivolous, vexatious or to be made in bad faith, or if the taxpayer refuses or neglects to cooperate. If the complaint is deemed admissible, the DTP opens a file and assigns it to the Direction générale (DG) concerned. Once the file is completed, the DG sends it to the DTP for quality control; the DTP can intervene at any time while the DG is processing the complaint. The DTP determines whether or not there is a basis for the complaint, approves it and closes the file.
The process is essentially the same at the federal level, except that there is no official complaints department, but a Service Complaints program. A complaint officer liaises with the departments concerned. For federal purposes, the complaint is reviewed in light of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
5. How long does it take to process a complaint?
For the ARQ, the objective is to process complaints within 35 days. According to recent statistics, this objective is met in approximately 90% of cases. At the CRA, the goal is to process complaints within 30 days, and recent statistics show that around 95% of cases are processed within that time.
The ARQ and the CRA have formally set up administrative structures that are meant to be impartial and well-defined processes to ensure that complaints are reviewed in the most transparent manner possible, including those dealing with reprisals. Have certain taxpayers been subject to “more rigorous controls” after filing a complaint? Unfortunately, there is widespread belief among practitioners that this occurs. While no one can confirm this, the ARQ and the CRA have mentioned on several occasions and in various forums that this type of problem would be taken very seriously should it come to their attention. Consequently, we believe that taxpayers should not avoid using this remedy based on this fear. Should a taxpayer continue to feel wronged following a decision made in respect of a complaint, he or she can turn to the Protecteur du citoyen or the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman, a topic we will address in an upcoming article.
Louis-Olivier Lavoie, CPA, CA
Senior Manager, Tax
On behalf of the technical working group on taxation and commodity taxes